by W. David Stahlman
Last weekend, neuroscientist and popular author Sam Harris tweeted, “Is there anyone who doubts that the odious Dylann Storm Roof was motivated by his (racist) beliefs?” To which I reply: Yes, I doubt this very much. I do not believe that Roof murdered those people because he is racist. In fact, I consider it actively harmful to posit this as an explanation for the tragedy that took the lives of nine innocent black Americans.
Before I get drowned in a flood of hate mail, let me clarify things a bit. First, I think it is very clear that Roof is a virulent racist. A huge amount of evidence indicates that he holds truly repugnant views on race, especially with respect to black people. His crime was an act of domestic terrorism, and unless something truly unexpected emerges during the legal process, he should be thrown in prison for the rest of his life. However, his racism did not cause him to murder those people. Like his crime, his racism is not a cause, but an effect. At this time, we should be asking about the nature of the shared cause for both, and considering how this analysis may help prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.
Human behavior can seem extraordinarily complex. However, in a scientific analysis, we can simplify the relevant general processes that govern behavior to less than a handful of items. For our purposes here, let us consider “Behavior and Belief” as the middle link in a three-link chain. The first link is “Environment and Culture,” and the last is “Consequences.”
Just like with a physical chain, when you move a single link, you also tend to move the others. Reward (or reinforcement) and punishment are examples of consequences that change behavior. Rewards are offered for good behavior as a way to increase the likelihood of similar good behavior happening in the future; punishments are threatened to reduce the chances of unwanted behavior occurring. On the other hand, environments serve to provide a context for the kinds of behavior that will be reinforced or punished. If you have cheered at the top of your lungs while attending a raucous sporting event, but would never dream of doing so at a somber funeral, you recognize the importance of environments in controlling your behavior. When we talk about a culture, we are merely describing a social environment that serves to set the stage for the reinforcement of particular sorts of human behavior. For example, someone invoking “gun culture” in America is really talking about the vast web of human interaction that provides cover and, ultimately, reinforcement for those who would buy, sell, collect, discuss, and shoot guns.
That our behavior is a necessary product of both its consequences and its antecedent environmental conditions is critically important to remember when we want to improve our lot in this world, because it is only by manipulating these links that we can change human behavior.
The consequences for Dylann Roof’s actions could not be more dire for him. By murdering those people, he has probably ensured that he will spend his remaining years in prison, and may even face execution. It is difficult to imagine harsher consequences for one’s actions, and yet the behavior still happened. Roof is not insane – there can be little doubt that he knew that he would probably be caught, and knew that his life was effectively coming to an end with his actions. In fact, that many terrorists (e.g., suicide bombers, mass shooters) kill themselves in their attacks could be seen as an acknowledgment that their lives are effectively over, that only terrible things await them. We probably cannot and definitely should not design punishments that are harsher than death. So, to reduce violent crime and terrorism, what are we to do?
Our only option is to change the environments that give rise to violent crime. Cultures that encourage profligate use of firearms, distrust of education, and hatred of minorities will be much more likely to have a Dylann Roof emerge from them than cultures where any of those pillars is missing. If you remove the antecedent conditions that would give rise to objectionable behavior, you prevent that behavior from ever occurring. Roof’s beliefs did not and do not matter in a causal analysis. At most, his racism is an indicator, a symptom of a sick world from which he emerged. Arguing about beliefs is unproductive. Instead, we should talk about the conditions that caused Roof to behave as he did and believe as he does.
It is perverse that so many people would deny or obfuscate the role of culture in causing tragic events like the Charleston massacre. When we see Fox News talking heads blatantly ignore the topic of race relations in America as a determining factor in this tragedy, we are watching people essentially trying to prevent cultural change with respect to race. When pundits claim that crimes like Charleston are acts of the mentally ill, or are “isolated” or “senseless” incidents, they work to prevent clarity on the causes for the crimes. Guns rights advocates often go a step further, suggesting that culture is important, but arguing that an expansion of their culture is needed. Simplistic aphorisms like, “an armed society is a polite society,” and “guns don’t kill people, people do” are intonations of a culture that is working to preserve itself. That platitudes like these are demonstrably untrue is of little consequence to the group’s members, as what really matters is that the words are effective at perpetuating a cultural message beneficial to their aims.
If we can blame a man for a crime, if we can fully blame a person’s mental state or mental illness, it absolves a culture from responsibility. It is easy to see why we tend to blame the individual. If a crime is the sole responsibility of a person, we have many ways to deal with the issue – an individual may be fined, shamed, institutionalized, imprisoned, or executed, any of which is usually easy enough to implement. After punishing the criminal, we can heartily congratulate ourselves on effectively addressing the problem. However, if a person’s criminal actions are the necessary product of a larger causal force, the problem we are looking to fix becomes much, much more challenging. Punishing the criminal may help prevent some unlawful actions in the future (see chain link #3), but a maximally effective technique must also address the issue of the complex environment that gave rise to the behavior in the first place. Humans tend to prefer simple answers to complex ones. Some of us have a stronger preference than others.
Saints and monsters do not emerge from nothingness, but instead are built by their environments. By building a better world, we can banish monsters like Dylann Roof from the human experience. To do so, we must not be distracted by those who would muddy the waters. We must not be confused by fervent appeals to a kind of freedom that none of us has. We must not talk of beliefs in causing behavior, but instead talk about how beliefs are built. By understanding and accepting our necessary, intermediate role between culture and consequences, we understand how we might change human behavior for the better.